This spring, believers of all monotheistic religions will be called upon to fast together. Yes! 2022 is a special year during which the Christian Lent, the Muslim Ramadan, and the Jewish Fast of the Firstborn (the day before Passover) fall on the same period. A rare occurrence where the 9th month of the lunar calendar (Ramadan) intertwine with the solar calendar’s sacred days preceding Easter (Holy Monday, Good Friday etc.). To celebrate this juncture, we decided to deep-dive into why religion encourages us to fast and if science agrees with the health aspects of this, still somewhat polemical, practice. Hold fast and read on!
In religion, fasting is often connected to prophets and deserts. After his baptism, Jesus retired to the desert 40 days and fasted. So did Moses earlier on Mount Sinaï. So did Prophet Mohammed later in the Arabian Desert. The word Ramadan itself stems from the Arabic root “ar-ramad,” which means scorching heat. In fact, Ramadan honors the month of angel Gabriel’s revelation of the Quran to Mohammed. The holy event is believed to have taken place during summer at Mecca, a traditional desert town. When it comes to the religious fast, heat and desert are always pretty much in the picture.
It is interesting to note that strong theological themes such as God’s unity and infinity, equality of all believers, human solidarity, the sense of the supernatural, exaltation of divine severity, exile and nomadism can all be interpreted as instances of adaptation to the desert environment.
The one thing on which all agree
How come fasting is the one thing on which all religions see eye to eye? Well, for one thing, each monotheistic religion alludes to previous prophets and acknowledges as legitimate their fasting while wandering in the desert.
Prophet Muhammad testifies in a sourate: “O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint.”—Surah Baqarah 2:183
In Christianism, Lent is a preparation for the feast of Easter, a time of fasting and abstinence that prepares us to receive new life in the light of the risen Christ. Many Christians, in addition to fasting, give up certain luxuries in imitation of Jesus Christ's sacrifice during his journey into the desert for 40 days, this is known as one's Lenten sacrifice.In Judaism, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, allows to expiate your faults and seek God's forgiveness. “On that day they will make atonement for you, to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord,” says Leviticus (one of the books of the Torah). In all these religions fasting is associated to a passage to the desert, a return to oneself, a heart to heart with God, for a purification of the soul, an interior transformation for a better life through self-discipline and almsgiving.
Is science backing this up?
The spiritual benefits of fasting purported by religion: self-discipline, purification and reparation/atonement bear odd resemblance with the biological benefits brought forward by scientific evidence.
A successful fast takes self-discipline, we can easily infer this without the authority of a doctor or a big scholarly study. One could even argue that the good old desert isn’t nearly as tempting as the grocery stores, markets, pubs, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops filling our present-day streets.
When it comes to purification, biologically, fasting cleanses our body of toxins and allows our cells to start new processes that cannot be stimulated during digestion. Some of these processes include gluconeogenesis (converting glycogen to sugar for energy), ketosis (converting fat to energy), and autophagy (cell auto-processing). During autophagy (after at least 16 hours of fast), cells start working on themselves, recycling ‘bad’ misfolded proteins and renewing into ‘better’ cells. Overall, the process allows our cells to become more efficient and durable. This pretty much checks the box for purification.
Fasting also boosts our basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy our bodies burn while resting), thereby lowering our heart rate and blood pressure. Some animal studies have also reported that fasting could protect brain health and increase the generation of nerve cells to help enhance cognitive function. In fact, the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics even found that fasting increases clarity and memory. Another research in the Journal of Nutrition Health & Aging found that after 3 months of intermittent fasting, study participants reported improved moods and decreased tension, anger, and confusion. This could be seen as covering reparation or atonement.
Overall, a body of evidence strongly suggests that fasting is a viable mode of regeneration both physically, mentally, and perhaps even spiritually. So there is no battle. Let us all relish in the fact that science and religion agree on this one unusual thing that is fasting.True Tribe advises to consult a doctor before attempting to fast for an extended period, especially if you have any chronical conditions.